Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that House Bill 1547 failed in a House committee last week. While that information is correct, the bill was later amended and has since passed the House. This story has been updated to reflect that change.
A bill that would prohibit Arkansas from implementing any form of requirement for a "vaccine passport" has passed its first legislative hurdle.
The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee, by a voice vote Wednesday, advanced Senate Bill 615 to the full Senate.
Under the legislation, the state, a state agency or entity, a political subdivision of the state, as well as any state or local official would not be able to require an individual to produce documentation that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, presented the bill to the committee, saying he thinks everyone should be vaccinated, but doesn’t believe the government should require it.
"The idea for you to live your day to day life to show a piece of paper to show that you’ve been vaccinated is frankly un-American. It goes against what we’ve done in our history for the last 200 years," Garner said. "We can’t let a pandemic change the way that we live, our way of life and infringe on basic bill of right protections like the right to privacy."
Representatives from the Arkansas Department of Health spoke against the bill. General Council Laura Shue said the department was concerned over the “lack of definitions” in the bill.
"In Section B, it says that the state is prohibited from any purpose, so does that mean that it also prohibits incentives or rewards? The state obviously does not require this, but it does take away local control. Cities and counties will also be affected as it includes local officials," Shue said.
A similar bill that would have prohibited the mandating of COVID-19 vaccines to enroll in a school or early learning center, as a condition for employment or in order to obtain a license, failed in a House committee last week. However, an amended version of said bill passed the House on Wednesday and awaits a hearing in a Senate Committee
The committee on Wednesday also advanced a bill that adds professions to Arkansas’ current Volunteer Health Care Act. House Bill 1439, which passed on a voice vote, would add therapists, addiction specialists and counselors into the program.
Under the existing program, health care professionals, including students enrolled in an accredited program that prepares them for a listed healthcare profession, can receive Continuing Medical Education, or CME credits, for delivering volunteer health care services to “eligible low income patients” through a contract with the Arkansas Department of Health.
Professions currently included in the law, which the legislature passed four years ago, include: pharmacists, dentists and dental hygienists, chiropractic physicians as well as others.
In speaking on an amendment to the bill, Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said the changes would make it more inclusive.
"We learned that the department has also authorized some other folks to do this and we want to be careful that by passing this legislation we’re not excluding anybody else," Tucker said. "The amendment also adds language to say that someone can qualify for the Volunteer Health Care Act if they’re a health care professional who’s licensed, certified or registered under subtitle three of Title 17 of the Arkansas Code."
No one spoke against the legislation. It now goes to the full Senate for a vote. If passed, it will go to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for consideration.